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Oligarch's high hopes of being president

Is Mikhail Prokhorov a stooge candidate backed by the Kremlin or a real rival to Vladimir Putin? Shaun Walker joins the 6ft 8in candiate for the campaign launch

Mikhail Prokhorov strode into the hall to a ripple of polite applause, his 6ft 8in- frame clad in a sharp suit and magenta tie. Russia's third-richest man was until recently most famous for his playboy lifestyle and his ownership of the New Jersey Nets basketball team. Now, he wants to be the next president of Russia.

A wildcard candidate in the upcoming elections, Mr Prokhorov has promised to target the "active minority" of Russians, especially those who came on to the streets in December to protest against rigged parliamentary elections and the planned return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency. The gangly oligarch will stand for president against Mr Putin on 4 March, in a race that, realistically, he has no chance of winning. He has also been forced to make repeated denials that he is a "stooge" candidate; a carefully managed critic who can be used to channel some of the discontent from the protest movement in a manner safe for the Kremlin.

Over the weekend, he began his presidential campaign in the city of Kazan, at a meeting with the city's young people, and for the first time shared the full details of his manifesto. Together, the people in the hall were the embodiment of the new middle-class that has sprung up in Russia during the oil boom of the past decade, not just in Moscow but also in provincial centres like Kazan, a city of about a million inhabitants 400 miles east of the Russian capital.

More than 2,000 people turned out to meet the oligarch, ranging from acne-ridden geeks with wispy moustaches to cardigan-wearing hipsters. Kazan now has shiny new shopping malls and international hotel chains, there are direct flights to Frankfurt and Istanbul, and the local football team, Rubin Kazan, have played several seasons in the Champions League. But no longer only satisfied with increased economic possibilities, many young people have become more politically active since last month's elections.

Mr Prokhorov opened with his life story, a rags-to-riches yarn typical of Russia's oligarch class. Growing up, he said, his family had no car, no country house and lived five people to a tiny apartment. Despite the fact that he would later become one of the richest people in the world, and gain a reputation for excess even amid the milieu of Russia's notoriously profligate oligarchs, he claimed that the most important money for him was the very first roubles that he made. "The best purchase I ever made was my first pair of jeans, which I still wear sometimes," he said.

Most of what he says policy-wise sounds eminently sensible, and it certainly resonated with the audience. Some of it sounded rather vague ("we need to build new roads, ports, railway stations") but much of it consisted of concrete policy steps designed to appeal directly to disaffected young Russians. Perhaps the biggest cheer of the event came when he said he would end conscription to the army. Most wealthy Russians manage to wiggle out of military service, but the difficult conditions and widespread "hazing" or harassment of conscripts are a shadow that hangs over young Russian men as they grow up.

The contender also promises to do more to promote visa-free travel for Russians to the European Union, to make life easier for start-up businesses, and to restore confidence in the police. He would raise taxes on cigarettes, alcohol and luxury items, while lowering tax for business.

By the end of the two-hour session, the lukewarm applause had become more heartfelt. There was a sense that Mr Prokhorov had genuinely impressed the crowd. Of 20 random people questioned by The Independent leaving the event, 17 said that they would vote for the oligarch.

"I like that he says concrete things about concrete problems, and that he says people should work for themselves," said 22-year-old student Denis.

"Other parties are forever promising different things from the state, but he is saying, if you work hard, you will get your rewards, and the state and police will not bother you."

Alyona Parkhomenko, a 22-year-old start-up businesswoman, said she signed up to watch Mr Prokhorov speak after reading about the event on an online social network. "I have started following politics closely, and have been to all the opposition rallies in Kazan," she says. "Until today, I wasn't sure who I was going to vote for, but this has persuaded me, I'll vote for Prokhorov."

Mr Putin's core demographic remains those Russians who are not online, and get their news from the state-controlled television. One of the young people in Kazan asked Mr Prokhorov how he would get his message to a wider audience. "The majority of people don't know who you are – those people who are offline, who don't use the internet," said the questioner. "They only watch the television, and we all know what rubbish is on the television. How will you get your message across to them?"

Mr Prokhorov replied that he will send out teams of volunteers to inform people of his programme. But there have been suggestions that the oligarch does not want to be too successful. He has tried almost perversely hard to avoid direct criticism of Mr Putin, even while eviscerating the political system built by the Russian Prime Minister. When asked whether he suspected Mr Putin was personally corrupt, he said that "suspicion is best left to women", and he has refused to take advantage of the growing anti-Putin sentiment among segments of the population.

Such reticence has led to further doubt about the genuineness of his bid. When asked by The Independent in Kazan why he was so reluctant to criticise Mr Putin, he said he did not want to base his campaign on negativity. "It's not only Putin, we are all guilty," he said. "Putin has pluses and minuses... On the whole I agree with the things that were said on Bolotnaya and Sakharova [the two big Moscow protests] but why should I always repeat this?"

Russian magazine The New Times has even quoted a source close to Mr Prokhorov saying that the oligarch decided to stand only after receiving a phone call directly from Mr Putin asking him to do so. The clearest sign that Mr Prokhorov's campaign has the blessing of the Kremlin, at least tacitly, came yesterday when his application to join the ballot was tentatively approved by the Russian Central Election Commission, while Grigory Yavlinsky, from the liberal party Yabloko, was denied registration.

"It's clear that Prokhorov supports Putin in one way or another," said political analyst Evgeny Minchenko. The oligarch himself claims that his goal is to make it to a second round run-off with Mr Putin, something that the current opinion polls, which give him just a few miserly per cent of the votes, suggest is unlikely. It is possible that his ultimate goal is to be a reformist prime minister under a Putin presidency, but winning the presidency is a highly unlikely outcome.



1965 Born in Moscow

1983-85 Serves in the Soviet Army

1993 Sets up Oneksim bank, his main investment vehicle

2001 Chairman of Norilsk Nickel, one of the world's largest metal firms.

2007 Arrested by French police on suspicion of flying in prostitutes for lavish New Year party. Charges later dropped, police apologise.

2009 Buys New Jersey Nets basketball team

June 2011 Becomes head of Right Cause, a new political party. Steps down after claiming interference from Kremlin.

December 2011 Announces that he will run for President